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from Cuyahoga County ‘Pay-to-Stay’ legislation on hold

Posted March 21, 2023
1:33 pm

By Kaitlin Durbin

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Just six days after it was introduced, Pay-to-Stay legislation has been put on hold indefinitely, while Cuyahoga County Council reviews its legality.

The legislation, sponsored by Councilman Dale Miller, was designed to prevent unnecessary evictions due to nonpayment, including being one-day late on rent, by allowing tenants to bring their account current before an eviction judgment. It read that if tenants could pay the past due rent, any late fees and any applicable court costs, then they should be allowed to remain in the home, and the eviction filing would be dismissed.

However, an hour before council’s Community Development Committee was scheduled to discuss it, the county’s law department issued a legal opinion, citing an Ohio law that, it says, preempts the county – and the eight municipalities with similar ordinances already on the books – from enacting the legislation.

How exactly the law binds the county is unclear. Law Director Greg Huth asked council members not to waive attorney-client privilege in order to discuss the reasoning until they have more time to research and discuss the law. But his opinion cited an amendment to Ohio House Bill 430, passed in September 2022, as a general reason.

The bill prohibits political subdivisions – counties, townships, municipal corporations – from governing landlord-tenant relationships, particularly through rent control or rent stabilization regulations. It reads that “it is the intent of the general assembly to preempt political subdivisions from regulating the rights and obligations of parties to a rental agreement... including through the imposition of rent control and rent stabilization in any manner.”

Councilman Miller was not deterred.

“Ohio is not a tenant-friendly state,” he told his colleagues, noting it is one of only five states where a person can be evicted “for being a day late and a dollar short on their rent.” But he reiterated that it is “essential that we do everything possible to eliminate unnecessary evictions.”

He asked the law department to research the issue further and, if necessary, consider ways to rewrite the ordinance to bring it in compliance with state law. He also called for more buy-in from local municipalities, eight of which have already enacted their own versions of Pay-to-Stay legislation.

“The threat of pre-emption doesn’t necessarily kill the bill,” he said. “My hope is that the chair would hold it in committee and schedule another hearing in 4-6 weeks, when we could hear from the municipalities and get an update on the legal landscape.”

Molly Martin, a housing rights advocate with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, which helped draft Miller’s legislation, and Hazel Remesch, lead attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, argued against any legal issues.

They’ve helped enact – and defend – Pay-to-Stay protections already in place in Cleveland, Lakewood, Euclid, South Euclid, Maple Heights, Newburgh Heights, Cleveland Heights and Warrensville Heights, all of which would be nullified by the state law under the county law department’s reading.

Instead, the advocates said those communities are accepting Pay-to-Stay as an affirmative legal defense – not a right – to avoid eviction, meaning, if the tenant has the money to pay back rent and fees, judges tend to side in their favor. Communities would not have been able to spend as much pandemic-related rental assistance dollars to help keep residents in their home without that protection, they added.

“Pay-to-stay creates a defense for a tenant facing eviction, and it doesn’t regulate rental agreements,” Martin said.

She cited a memo from the Ohio Poverty Law Center, in which they denied any conflict between HB 430 and Pay-to-Stay legislation (read the memo below or use this link). Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo and Akron already have similar ordinances.

Martin characterized the ordinance as a win-win for landlords and tenants, because for the legislation to be honored, landlords must be made whole, and in the process, tenants get to remain in their home and avoid having an eviction on their record, which can prevent them from finding other housing.

In Cleveland, she said, 80% of evictions are filed based on nonpayment, and the average back rent owed is $1,200.

Councilwoman Sunny Simon questioned whether any legislation is necessary given the state already provides for a similar defense based on equity. But advocates say countywide legislation would make it easier to inform residents about their options where they live and also unify protections, while leaving some wiggle room for communities that either adopt stricter rules or opt out entirely.

Committee Chairwoman Cheryl Stephens agreed to hold the legislation while council seeks clarity on the law.

But it’s important to continue discussing, she said, even if the logistics aren’t yet worked out, “because it is something that if this was a different state or a different world, we would all believe in.”

Source: - Cuyahoga County ‘Pay-to-Stay’ legislation on hold

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